Larry D. Curtis, as part of the team at TheOneRing.net, has been comprehensively covering the works and adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien for more than a decade, making the not-for-profit site the leading source about The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings for fans and film makers world wide. Curtis represents the site at conventions and events around the growing New York Comic Con in October. You can read his The Hobbit Countdown here at Movies.com every other week.
The Hobbit is a children’s book. Episodic, sometimes silly and with a narrator who occasionally shows up and speaks down to readers as an adult does to a child; full of anachronisms, it wasn’t originally meant to be taken too seriously.
Readers who know J.R.R. Tolkien beyond just the most popular surface stories will remember that the author revised the original story after the publication of The Lord of the Rings to fit the texts together a little better, including the portrayal of Gollum.
But Tolkien didn’t convert his first published tale of Middle-earth into an epic or an adult story, but preserved it for its original intended audience: children.
Peter Jackson tackles the story with a filmic duology that takes place before his cinematic LOTR trilogy but hits audiences after. It is clear through his casting, especially his returning cast members like Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom, that the director and his writing team of Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens (joined on this script by Guillermo del Toro) are making every effort to link the sets of movies together.
Jackson then is left with the challenge of forging links in the cinema to create a five-film set without crushing the tone of one of the most beloved books of the 20th Century. It is a daunting adaptation challenge, and while it is difficult to spoil the story of a book that will actually celebrate its 75th anniversary a little early in the same year Jackson releases his first film, the choices the writer / director / producer makes are anything but absolutes.
Will the pull of massive battles, terrible dragons, a long and bloody history of warfare between Dwarves and Goblins and efforts to tie the sets of films together tempt Jackson to make these serious films about warfare and the loss of homeland?
Or will talking animals like spiders, trolls and wargs (and wallets!) combine with songs about breaking plates and fish-out-of-water burglars to give the tone the light, humorous atmosphere that sticks closer to the original work? And, whichever way Jackson goes, will it open his film to criticism or even cause a strong division of opinions among fans?
If the films are too serious, lovers of the original work may complain that Jackson didn’t trust Tolkien. If the films are too light-hearted and silly, LOTR film-fans might be left wondering where its Middle-earth went. Obviously the Kiwi director will try to walk the fine line and find balance between comedy and epic fantasy. It will not be easy.
Jackson isn’t just the LOTR director. He has his serious side with films like The Lovely Bones and Heavenly Creatures but an unabashedly irreverent side that pushed forward films like Bad Taste (small-town aliens traffic in human flesh), Meet the Feebles (adult-themed Muppets), Dead Alive (mother-in-law zombie eats the dog) and Forgotten Silver, a forgotten-director mocumentary.
News from the production is littered with clues. Empire Magazine was first on the scene, joining Jackson on set for the initial stages of Hobbit filming. It is hoped that other members of the press (including this writer representing TheOneRing.net and Movies.com; rumors place a different geek-film site writer at the scene) will have a chance to report back, but so far Empire has seen more and reported more than anybody else.
Speaking of the band of Dwarves, Empire said:
“Watching them (plus Bilbo) stomp and squabble about set (a unit on- and off-camera), Time Bandits springs to mind, or the anarchic joy of early Jackson: Bad Taste. Braindead, those scurrilous Feebles. Yesterday, they filmed the world's first 'Dwarf wedgie* ("We found it in the appendices." swears Jackson), while Stage K is utilising a mysterious "snot gun". These bloody-minded cannonballs provide an opportunity to send up the gravity of Rings, even as they lay its groundwork."
Snot guns and a Dwarf wedgie?
"The tone is actually the part of it I'm enjoying the most, which is ironic," Jackson told Empire. "We are being more humorous than Lord Of The Rings, but that is the characters.”
Remember Gimli? Digestive humor?
But Jackson also indicates it is the characters’ lack of regard for Middle-earth’s icons, including Elves, that creates outspoken and funny Dwarves.
But some deadly serious elements are obviously in play as well.
Cast as Orc-chieftain Azog is Conon Stevens, a giant of a man who functions as both stuntman and actor. His inclusion indicates that this Dwarf-centric tale will delve into lore that depicts Azog as the starter of a race feud. Thorin Oakenshield, probably the two films’ main Dwarven protagonist, not only lost his also-cast grandfather Thror (Jeffrey Thomas) to the giant villain Azog but suffered humiliation with his people when his ancestor’s head was lifted from his shoulders and thrown down disrespectfully with “Azog” carved in the flesh.
Nine years of underground race wars later, Thorin was present as Azog fell leaving his own son Blog to hate Dwarves and later to wage war on them in The Hobbit book’s Battle of Five Armies. Thorin’s father Thrain (Michael Mizrahi) is cast as well, providing evidence that this will be personal. None of that sounds too lighthearted and Azog probably isn’t named as part of the cast to be just a bit player. And, as much as Jackson likes off-color humor, he also savors epic battles, bloody creature deaths and raising the stakes while punching up the drama with some serious business. Material like this will likely be irresistible.
Gandalf’s absence from the main stage in the book also introduces the wizard dealing with the wider affairs of Middle-earth, including a growing threat in Mirkwood Forest that turns out to be Sauron before his transformation into the Lidless Eye in LOTR.
Joining the returning Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elf dignitaries Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) is Sylvester McCoy. The former Doctor Who was recently at DragonCon in Atlanta where TheOneRing.net managed to ask him a question about the tone of any potential wizard roles. Would it be humorous or serious?
“What a clever question. Perhaps a bit of both,” he laughed.
Other casting leaves less doubt about its likely funny function for the film.
Another Goblin actor, Barry Humphries, is most famous for being Dame Edna Everage. To invite him to play a goblin in an early episode in one of the mini-adventures is unusual and perhaps inspired casting.
Stephen Fry, with his wide-ranging talents, may be asked to blend his comedic and dramatic abilities as the Master of Laketown. (Sources tell TORn his conflict with Bard will be significantly amped up.)
But even the released production images of the Dwarves inform the viewer that these will be characters deeply rooted in fun. Don’t forget the star-shaped coiffure of Nori , prodigious Bombur’s hair necklace and Bifur’s forehead, permanently embedded with a weapon or mining tool. The visual jokes, rich with character personality, are right in front of our very faces.
Jackson will certainly not be able to please everybody, and the balance of humor, adventure, drama and forging links to the LOTR film trilogy will be -- or is -- a challenge. Just longer than a year remains before, like Jackson, fans return to Middle-earth. Do ticket buyers want more jokes or more drama?